A Global Conversation with Loree Jones

Global Philadelphia’s 2021 Globy Award for Community Leadership this year goes to Loree Jones. Loree has served in top leadership positions in the nonprofit, higher education and government sectors, including Managing Director, or chief operating officer, of the City of Philadelphia, chief of staff for Rutgers University—Camden and chief of external affairs for the School District of Philadelphia. She is currently Chief Executive Officer of Philabundance, a hunger relief agency serving 9 counties in southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. We had the chance to speak with Loree about her distinguished work, the international diversity of Philadelphia, and what we will be able to see from her in the future. 

Will Becker: Your work with community leadership has been pretty significant to say the least and is going to be celebrated through our upcoming Globy Awards. Could you tell me any initiatives that you're particularly proud of throughout your career, and some that might be coming up with Philabundance that you're excited about

Loree Jones: Thank you, it's an honor to get this award. I am lucky to have been in a number of roles where I have deep pride in the work that was accomplished and many moments of pride. 

One of those moments is when I was at Rutgers-Camden and we turned a reading assignment for the university into a moment to mobilize. We had Matthew Desmond’s Evicted as the assigned read and took that opportunity to have a symposium where we shared ideas about policies and practices to help people who are housing insecure on both sides of the river. We had people from South Jersey and Philadelphia get together and talk about the issue of eviction and how we can all better support people facing housing insecurity. 

Thinking back, years and years ago. I am very proud of the work done with Curfew Centers when I was in the city. This was an idea that was born out of community meetings.  In those meetings, we heard the community talk about the disproportionate number of young people who were victims and perpetrators of gun violence. After hours and hours of meetings with the community, we co-created a solution of starting Curfew Centers. With these Centers in place, we then saw a marked reduction in the numbers of young people who are victims and perpetrators of gun violence. 

I think even with these two examples, a common passion throughout my work has been promoting the value of convening, engaging, listening, and empowering communities and colleagues to find solutions.  To create a real partnership and collaboration. Now at Philabundance, we are shifting how we think and do our work to be centered around this idea of focusing on the people we serve. 

That means we're looking at the food that we provide to people.  In the last year, we have dramatically increased the variety of foods that are offered, and we’re moving to offer more culturally appropriate and culturally sensitive food for people that are struggling to make ends meet. We're doing more to develop a more aggressive nutrition policy that we plan to develop with our partners and the people we serve to ensure we are providing people with the food they want and need.  

This is really important when you think about the traditional way people have been doing food drives, and what people provide. We're grateful for everyone who donates, but for us, we want to make sure that there are high protein, high produce, plant-based, low-sodium options that are available for everyone no matter if they get their food at Whole Foods or at one of our pantry partners. 

WB: It could be said that Philadelphia has a large amount of 'food deserts' compared to other major cities in America or the region. Do you feel this is a controversial term and is Philabundance working with any organizations to create more access to grocery stores and healthy food in particular in these areas?

LJ: Yes, absolutely. I'm glad you’re even asking the question about what to call the phenomenon because language does matter. We have just completed a comprehensive survey of a neighborhood surrounding the new building for our Philabundance Community Kitchen at 10th and Dauphin. When I mean a comprehensive survey, I mean this was with neighbors walking the neighborhood to understand what the access to food really looked like. What we've found is that there just isn't enough access to affordable, fresh, healthy food in an area that would not be defined as a food desert. There are food options associated with a university but the people who live in the community do not feel comfortable using those stores.  Therefore they are stuck and if we only look at data we would not be working to address a lack of access to food in that area.  We have to begin this work within the community.  

Philabundance is a food bank. We provide food to 350 food pantries, cupboards, community kitchens, and other organizations across this region. Our focus with this part of our work is ensuring our agency partners have and can distribute free, fresh, healthy food that includes dry goods, produce, meat, and dairy. 

We also use our role to bring people together.  Philabundance has a long history of relieving hunger today.  A few years about we made a commitment to working towards ending hunger for good.  We know we cannot accomplish that goal on our own and are working with local partners who look at other social determinants of health like housing and healthcare to be able to provide more of a well-rounded approach.  

I also look at my own network. I’m involved with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS). I'm currently Vice-Chair of the Board of PHS and in March of last year, they started a program called Harvest. Through Harvest, PHS has empowered and encouraged community gardeners and individual gardeners to donate produce to food pantries. Philabundance is an official partner with PHS, so our agency partners get access to that food. It allows people who are gardening for the greater good to give fresh, healthy produce directly to those in need.  Keeping the food within the community and providing educational opportunities for children and adults involved in the process.

WB: Could you tell me some of the greatest challenges your role has faced at Philabundance as a result of the pandemic, and what might be changing or persisting in the future? 

LJ: I've been at Philabundance since June of 2020, so I started pretty early on in the pandemic. It should come as no surprise that a huge issue throughout the pandemic has been access to food. Philabundance has served people for over 35 years so hunger was an issue long before the pandemic, but the economic crisis that followed saw many people losing their jobs or experiencing another crisis and facing hunger for the first time. Food was harder to find and more expensive in general, and so this was also the case for food banks that were attempting to provide food to folks in the neighborhoods. 

Another big challenge was really just ensuring that we were operating safely, prioritizing and caring for our staff, volunteers, agencies, and people we serve. We, like other people, had to adjust to the ever-changing public health and CDC guidelines about how to make sure that we were working and serving people safely.  

WB: I want to hear a little bit more about this term that you're using, ‘culturally appropriate food.’ Could you tell us a little bit about what that means and how it relates to a lot of the issues that Philabundance is helping out with?

LJ: It really is just ensuring we are providing the right food, the right way, at the right time for people. If someone's family is from the Caribbean and there are certain spices that they're interested in, we want to make sure they have access to those. If we have folks who are food insecure who are Asian or Asian American, we want to make sure that they have access to the kinds of food that they prefer. We've worked with a non-profit in South Philadelphia called SEAMAAC, who provides food to people and actually have a great community garden. 

We helped them obtain access to specific types of food, like certain types of rice and certain types of beans for instance. We know that people typically in our area are from around the globe and that there are unique foods they might be interested in, and we want to make sure they have access to those through our agency partners and through our food bank. 

One of the great opportunities we had this summer was joining up with a group called Partnership for a Healthier America – it's a national organization that was founded by former First Lady, Michelle Obama. It’s an entity that encourages you to have high nutrition guidelines for food banks like ours. They did a program this summer called Pass The Love, which is associated with the Netflix TV show Waffles and Mochi. We distributed 5000 meal kits – kind of like a ‘HelloFresh’ or ‘Blue Apron’ – with spices, dry goods, a bag of produce, and recipes. Many of these were recipes representing the world. It provided an opportunity for people if they were in these particularly diverse communities to have access to that, but it also provided an opportunity for other people to get to try something new. We distributed 240,000 meals throughout the month of August in Philadelphia, Chester, Camden, and Montgomery counties through that program. 

WB: Could you tell me a bit about other instances where you’ve found the international diversity of Philadelphia in your work?

LJ: So, I'm an Eisenhower Fellow, and will actually join the Eisenhower Fellowship Board of Directors as well. For my fellowship, I traveled to South Africa. At the time I was working in local government, and I went to look at how cities there were providing social services to people. I spent time in Durban, Johannesburg, and Cape Town, and looked at local government at every level of the private sector and non-profits to see how they were addressing services. Part of what was great about my fellowship was seeing the various angles and aspects of how people and entities were coming together to address these issues. 

One of the examples I brought back I think applies here to food insecurity and Philadelphia more broadly. Across South Africa, health insurance companies have community health workers, community organizers, and folks that bring a company and organization to individuals on the ground. In Capetown, the local government at the time wanted to conduct outreach and education around HIV and AIDS. They would have a government worker drive up to a Township, but folks wouldn't really want to talk with them or open the door. 

So, what they did instead was they pivoted to instead work to engage, empower, and educate people from the community to be community health outreach workers.  The people from the community would then be the ones walking through the community to talk to their neighbors and educate their neighbors. They found great success because people would in fact, open the door and wouldn't immediately dismiss them. It had this additional benefit that in many cases this experience not only educated people and was really valuable to the community in terms of health education, but it was also an employment program giving some people their very first job. 

This idea of partnering in a way with other people to find a solution, and with an added benefit of also providing people with even further opportunities is something that I see a lot in the work we do at Philabundance and could be really applicable to how we approach problems in the city as a whole.